Previous Article Next Article Comments are closed. Do HR professionals let their own personal development slide, and is theirtendency to rely on HR ‘tools’ rather than developing business understandingholding them back in their careers? Personnel Today teamed up with AshridgeManagement College and senior HR people to debate the issue. By Phil BoucherWhy would a senior HR person overhaul her approach to HR? “It was theoverwhelming sense of being a fraud – which is a sense that I think many HRpeople tend to feel,” is one answer. The comment was made by Julie Holden,founder of the Spring Consultancy and previously director of internalconsulting at Ernst & Young. She was taking part in a roundtable debate,organised by Ashridge Management College and Personnel Today, on how to developsenior HR people. So what was it about the HR profession that made Holden feel like a fraud,and what new approach or philosophy has she since adopted? “There I was, running programmes that at the time were fairly vital andcentred around managing change, and I guess I was thinking, ‘There must be moreto being an organisational development consultant’. It can’t just be aboutfeeding solutions that are rapidly gobbled up so that the minute you hitsomeone with an idea they want another one.” Holden’s view that HR people can find themselves throwing ready-made solutionsat business problems, was one of the central themes to emerge from the debate. The discussion centred on whether HR managers, as the people responsible forthe development of staff throughout an organisation, sometimes fail to takecare of their own development. All the participants were members of the Advanced Development for Developersprogramme at Ashridge Management College, and the programme director MartynBrown talked about the need to free HR from the pitfalls of relying onready-made HR “tools” with an almost evangelical fervour. The consensus was that many HR professionals have not experienced a form ofpersonal development that will equip them to respond to the challenges oforganisational change. Ready-made solutions So what philosophy and approaches should HR people adopt so they can rise tothe challenge? The first action should be to stop relying on the familiar toolsin the HR kitbag, containing such instruments as 360-degree appraisal,psychometrics or benchmarking, as ready-made solutions to problems. “Unfortunately, HR in many organisations has been into situations whereit has to do things, because of its lack of influence, that it doesn’t reallywant to do, by using over-mechanistic and instrumental approaches to change,which it knows won’t work, but it is afraid of the CEO who’s trying to roll outthis stuff,” argued Brown. Holden supported this, and added that HR people felt under pressure toprovide solutions to organisational problems before they have time tounderstand the nature of the problem. “You can be fooled into a situation where you approach something from asolution point of view rather than looking at the problem,” she said. “A lot of HR people say, ‘Look, I’ve got this tool, I’ve got to make itfit’, as opposed to saying, ‘I don’t know what the problem or solutionis’.” Brown described this as “an addiction to tools”. The key point here is that an over-reliance on HR tools is an impediment todeveloping an understanding of business. Not only that, but ready-made toolsand instruments do not allow HR to respond to the rapid pace of change in 21stcentury organisations. But how can HR people equip themselves to move from the solutions-drivenapproach to one based on understanding the needs of the organisation in depth? The message from the panel is to simply study the business. Work out whereyou need to improve. Forget about hurling tools at a problem and realiseexactly what is going wrong and how you can solve it. This approach is far morereflective than the traditional HR route. But you also need to get permission from the board and colleagues to investin your own development. Steve Williams, HR director at Powergen, said the key is to push thebusiness case to the board. “Our organisation puts emphasis on peopletaking responsibility for their own development,” he said. “But there has to be a business rationale for it. I recognised therewere pieces of the wider HR portfolio that I had to dip into in a bit moredepth. The key issue was that it matched the business and my personal needs.Had it not then, rightly, support may not have been there.” But the panel also argued that CEOs are as guilty as HR for rolling outtools rather than getting at the heart of the problem. The issue is how HR caninfluence the board to support a different approach. “Personally, I think it’s the finance director that you have to get inwith,” said John Pedley, people development manager at Halfords. “Ifyou can get that guy to motor, you’ve got real influence on the board.” One of the issues that arose was whether HR needed to be on the board inorder to influence it. Williams argued that HR board representation is a red herring. “Whatdoes the board actually do?” he asks. “To me, the real issue is aboutthe influence you can have in relation to the executive management teams insidean organisation. “HR has to gain influence at the level of executive decision-making tohave influence and that can occur inside an organisation at two or threedifferent levels.” What exactly are the approaches that HR should adapt in place of the toolkitof mechanistic HR solutions? The approach favoured by the panel is intensive,open, group discussions about real workplace issues combined with actionlearning. The participants agreed that managers should be wary of a preoccupation withplanning, and not assume that experience and qualifications in HR are groundsfor believing you have the answers to business problems. Pedley suggested teams should take some time to relax, reflect and behonest. “In a situation like this, and in working life generally, there isa desire for certainty all the time,” he said. “Much of the time, this leaves you lying flat on your face. A lot ofthe time, we don’t know what’s going to happen. If we let ourselves believethat we know what we’re doing, we’re kidding ourselves.” Williams made the point that a balance had to be struck between taking timeout to reflect and responding to the urgent demands of business.”Certainly, in our business you can’t spend too long really understandingwhere you are today as you’ll ignore a lot of the stuff going on aroundyou,” he said. Light years behind The panel members were critical of the current approach to training peoplefor HR. “CIPD qualifications are light years behind,” said Holden.”People on my team who have done CIPD qualifications keep asking, ‘Howdoes this help me?’ “I think the CIPD will have a future if it continues to adapt, evolveand change along with the rest of the world. If it doesn’t and tries to keepthings as they are, then it won’t.” Williams said the narrow functional mentality is particularly true ofyounger HR specialists, which is worrying for the future of the profession. “It is frustrating in our organisation,” he said. “Many ofthe people at junior levels are the ones who are more steeped in the functionalposition rather than the business position. I think that it’s partly due tothem getting qualifications and the way they are taught, which is very muchfrom a functional point of view. “It is to some extent about a kitbag, but you have to wonder if that’sstill relevant.” The risk in abandoning the HR kitbag, however, is that HR could lose itsidentity as a separate functional specialism, and this begs questions about thesurvival of HR in the future. Was the panel worried about this? “I think HR gets too hung up on labels. Particularly, the label of HRitself,” suggested Holden. “At the end of the day, you are operating as a business partner, and ifyou can sit down and offer suggestions on how people can look at thingsdifferently, and have a conversation about the business without talkingpoppycock, it doesn’t really matter what you call yourself.” Brown pointed out that the emphasis on recruitment and the “talentwars” in business was already leading many companies to abandon the HRlabel. “You notice that directors are popping up on some of these boards withinteresting combinations in their job descriptions such as ‘reward, measurementand recognition’ and ‘chief talent officer’. “When you stop laughing, you can see there is actually something behindit all. Director of intellectual capital will become a far more common jobtitle at senior line management level,” predicted Brown. Often it is IT companies that are leading these trends. This promptedWilliams and Powergen’s executive management team to go on a fact-finding tourof Silicon Valley last year. “One of the things I learnt is that the function as it exists today –certainly in my role where you have a number of specific elements – may notremain. You wonder whether it will fit into the future,” said Williams. “I’d be amazed to find any organisations out there (Silicon Valley)that are structured in the relatively bureaucratic way that most of ourorganisations are today.” The result, he says, is that “you question the way you develop HRpeople, because what is a HR person?” It might even mean HR is axed altogether, Brown warned. “There are manyhighly successful, competitive organisations that don’t come within a mile ofHR in the professional sense,” he said. To sum up, unless the development of HR people is tied into the real changesin organisations, their skills and qualifications will become irrelevant,whatever they call themselves. For more information on the Advanced Development for Developers programmeat Ashridge Management College phone 01442 843491. Martyn Brown Programme director on the Advanced Development for Developers programme atAshridge Management CollegeSteve WilliamsHR director, PowergenNoel O’Reilly Panel chairman, Editor, Personnel TodayJulie Holden Consultant, previously director of internal consulting at Ernst & YoungJohn PedleyPeople development manager, Halfords Tool orderOn 24 Jul 2001 in Personnel Today Related posts:No related photos.